Up until now, Obama has largely done the fun part of governing: promising people free stuff. To be sure, even some of that is fairly unpopular, but the auto bailouts have undoubtedly pleased the UAW more than they have angered the rest of the population, and most of the bank spending has occurred under programs originated in the Bush administration. Now, however, the bill for Obama’s central proposals is about to come due. Unless Obama thinks he can borrow something like a trillion dollars a year indefinitely, he is going to have to ask Americans to make sacrifices to pay for the goodies.
And the taxes needed to pay for the new programs are not the only costs he will ask us to bear. Like most as yet unimplemented programs theoretically designed to make the world a better place, a cap-and-trade regime for reducing carbon emissions polls well. But when Americans actually have to start paying more for gas, electricity, and heating oil, they will not be so enthusiastic — especially if their budgets are still shrinking. And if health care is not to carry a shocking price tag, it will have to achieve some sort of savings through rationing: drug makers simply don’t make enough in profits to foot the entire bill through lower pharmaceutical prices. Richard Epstein has argued convincingly that ClintonCare foundered because most American voters have health insurance they are satisfied with. In theory, they support a government health care program–but when they are confronted by the details of how their health care will change, that support evaporates.